The NFL and its players took in another performance of The Incredible Dancing Lawyers on Friday in St. Louis, which might have been the best entertainment in town, assuming you've already spit in the Mississippi and been up in the Arch.
The lawyers hauled out the thick books for this one, and fired precedents back and forth across the courtroom. One side argued that you can't legally halt a lockout that arises from a labor negotiation, and the other argued that this isn't really a labor negotiations because, looky here, there's no union any more. You see a union? We don't see any union?
And that was the interesting part.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit listened carefully and the three-judge panel will issue its ruling "in due course," according to Judge Kermit E. Bye, which is a real relief. It was starting to look like this thing was going to drag out.
Sometime, somewhere this summer, all the legal wrangling and courtroom hopping will lead to something other than a haystack of billable hours. It is expected that the three judges in St. Louis will split, 2-1, as they have on previous rulings in this case, with the Republican appointees backing big business and the Democratic appointee supporting organized labor - even if it really isn't (wink, wink) organized any longer.
That part is predictable, and the lockout will remain in force. What happens after that isn't as clear, but the players are betting everything that their move to decertify the union - while continuing to operate as one - will make it possible to win an antitrust suit against the league. If that ever happened, or if the threat of it was real, the NFL would make it rain money until the players were drenched.
Unfortunately for the players, no one - except perhaps NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith - expects that to actually work. It is a flying machine that has been tried before without much success.
Still, it is the only play in the playbook and they are going to run it. As long as there is a longshot of a chance that the court system will see it their way, the players still have some leverage. It is not enough of a chance, however, or enough leverage, to force the NFL to negotiate a real contract settlement.
So this has become a wait for the players to lose ultimately in court and then take a fierce paddling at the negotiating table. It is difficult to imagine another outcome. All that remains to be seen is how long this process will take. It could wipe out the season. It could shorten the season. It could be settled in time for a brief training camp and a full season. If you're buying a ticket for the pool, take the over.
Meanwhile, as a show of solidarity or something, as a means of proving how much they love this darn game and can't wait to get back to it, the players are working out together and tossing the ball around. See, fans? All we want to do is play.
It is probably a better exercise in public relations than in exercise, but if the players really want to get something out of these sessions, they need to get organized and play each other. It doesn't sound like a good idea to actually play tackle football, but who wouldn't turn on the television to see the Pittsburgh Municipal Parks play rough touch against the Cleveland Community College Practice Fields?
Offer the games to the networks that carry the NFL, and if those decline the opportunity, that's another argument in the antitrust case. Clearly a league conspiracy. If it aired, this would be perfect summer fill-in programming and maybe the players could make enough money to hire some more lawyers. If people watch the draft combine, they'll watch anything.
Just an idea, and it isn't any dumber than the idea of canceling an entire season because the two sides can't figure out how to divide $9 billion in revenue. The league opted out of the last contract because it wants its slice of the pie to increase by somewhere between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. That's a nice wedge of pie, and there's nothing the NFL likes more than its pie.
The players want theirs, too, but they know better than most that the wins usually go to the stronger team. Right now, barring an upset in the courtroom, that isn't them.
Eventually, they will have to admit it. But that hasn't happened yet. Eventually they will have to stop their play dates in the park and face reality. There's no point in watching the lawyers repeat this dance if you already know how the tune ends.